Pick up Education Week or the Chronicle of Higher Education or even mass market publications like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and you're likely to find an article that asserts the value of "big data" in education. A few high-profile start-ups have built considerable buzz around the concept that massive amounts of data would lead to transformation in education. And, at Hobsons we've been talking about the potential opportunities for data and analytics for several years.

In truth, all of this is a bit frustrating to me. It’s not that I dispute the importance of good data when making decisions. In fact, I've always found it just a little bit bizarre that one of the big trends in U.S. education over the past decade has been "data-driven decision making" since I can't quite contemplate the alternative. But, the conversation has been too vague and overemphasizes technology while missing the important discussion of specific benefits to students and educators. At the same time, a parallel and crucial conversation about student privacy tends toward extremes – partly, I believe, because the "big data" discussion has been so nebulous.

With millions of student records in Naviance, and education CRM systems like Radius, Connect, and AY, Hobsons has both opportunities and obligations. We have commercial opportunities in helping students and the education institutions that serve them derive insights from data that can enhance decisions and outcomes. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to define specific benefits to students and educators. And, we have an obligation to demonstrate leadership in defining clear policies that go beyond minimum compliance with the law and put students' interests at the core.

To provide a specific example, one area where "big data" could deliver value for students, institutions, and Hobsons – and that I think warrants further exploration – is in helping students to assess the return on investment of their various post-secondary options. It's no secret that some colleges and universities are better than others, and that even among high-quality programs, different students may be more or less likely to succeed or may need specialized supports to do so. What if Hobsons could provide each student with an assessment of her likelihood to earn a particular degree from a given institution along with an estimate of her lifetime earnings? What if Hobsons could also offer the institution a roadmap for the student’s success, identifying any special support services that may be necessary to help her achieve her goals? The former could be based on historical records of past graduates and employment data while the latter could be informed by both cognitive and non-cognitive attributes tracked in Naviance but that wouldn't otherwise be available on a transcript, that the student could agree to share. The interests of both the student and the institution are served by ensuring a good match, while the student’s privacy is protected by obtaining consent to share data. Poor quality programs would have a tough time attracting students, forcing them to change or to go out of business; high quality programs could more effectively compete on the results they deliver.

Of course, there are many other examples, and, of course, earnings are an imperfect proxy for the quality of one's education. But, the sooner we get beyond broad, non-specific statements about the potential transformational impact of "big data" and focus on real use cases, the better.


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